As Carboniferous begins, it’s unclear as to what instruments are communicating through the speakers. A pulsing, low-toned beast hums over an adaptable backbeat, awaiting an indecipherable but universally understood high-pitched howl. By all accounts, this could be a gritty synthesizer and a warped guitar exchanging musical thoughts, but primarily, the instruments at play are the usual armaments of Italian sludge-jazz trio Zu: electric bass, baritone sax, and drums.
Previously, this decade-old group offered ornate free-jazz creations, often unrestrained from convention and always bucking pop structure. Its newest album and Ipecac debut, Carboniferous, filters Zu through a lens of alt-metal, anchored by the behemoth distorted bass riffs of bassist Massimo Pupillo and the demolishing thuds of drummer Jacopo Battaglia. Saxophonist Luca T. Mai is free to freak out atop the mountainous cadences, but his squealing leads and frenetic solos refrain from creating impenetrable walls of counterpoint.
Undoubtedly, Carboniferous is the heaviest creation of Zu’s prolific career. Through the band’s 14 releases and its members’ countless other collaborations, a maelstrom of musicality has rained upon listeners’ ears. As Zu, the three have summoned styles that include noise, math rock, punk, metal, experimental, improvisational, and no wave, and other projects have stretched into hip hop, traditional Roman murder ballads, and radically revised Beatles songs.
Carboniferous is heavier than all of it. For the first time, Battaglia’s kick drum plays a higher pitch than the bass. Everything other than drums is distorted, including the master recording of the album’s first two tracks, “Ostia” and “Chthonian.” And even the drums get distorted for Zu’s punishing live performance, one that has included the effected vocals and samples of luminous singer Mike Patton.
As one might imagine, finding the proper pedals is imperative to this massive sound, and thankfully, the band has a friend in Milan who runs a music shop with homemade pedals from all over the world.
“It’s difficult to find good stuff, especially for the bass, because you lose a lot of attack and bass frequencies with the commercial crap,” Pupillo says. “It’s good to find something that you can use, is powerful, and keeps the low end of the instrument.”
“Looking at our discography, it’s really one road that brings us to this record — every time getting a little bit closer to the center of what you want to say.”
Indeed, Pupillo’s bass is never lost in a wash of fuzz. His instrument, tuned down to a low B, anchors the album with math grooves and powerfully low tones. And to solve the acoustic problems of losing the baritone sax in the bass frequencies, Mai performs with a multi-effect bass pedal that Pupillo says is perfect for the saxophone. This bends the saxophone’s tone nearly to one of an echo-effected guitar, making it difficult at times to discern the sax from the few spots of guest guitar on Carboniferous (the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne appears on “Chthonian”). When everything is combined, it seems that Zu has arrived at a stark new sonic destination. The band, however, feels that its path to this point was instinctive.
“Looking at our discography,” Pupillo says, “it’s really one road that brings us to this record — every time getting a little bit closer to the center of what you want to say. For us, it takes a lot of time; it’s really digesting a lot of ideas and influences. It’s very organic. It’s not something like post-modern composition, where you say, ‘Okay, let’s play one bar country, two bars hardcore, and one bar contemporary.’”
When asked about the world’s shrinking musical boundaries, Pupillo agrees that the Internet has had a vast impact, acting as a catalyst for cultural fusion, and he credits it for turning Zu’s members onto other great groups from around the globe.
“We are so omnivorous,” he says. “I think that a lot of people today are not listening to one kind of music anymore. It’s really hard to find somebody who only listens to metal, punk, ethnic music, or whatever is out there. There are so many great things. You get inspired by so many things that you hear or see, and in some way, you don’t want to cut that from you.”
And for as much ground as Zu has covered in its discography, its members join forces elsewhere for different sounds. A full-length collaboration with noisy hip-hop duo Dälek is in the works; the aforementioned Roman murder ballads were recorded for two Ardecore albums with Karate’s Geoff Farina; a project called Black Engine found Zu with electro-experimental guitarist Eraldo Bernocchi; a collaboration called Garden of Evil, whose album is due this year, will have Zu’s rendering of works by composer Bernard Herrmann.
Zu’s members also spend down time — what little they have outside of the band’s immense touring schedule — playing improvisational jazz gigs, often with members of Chicago’s thriving jazz scene. But for their innumerable collaborations, none may be more exciting than that with Patton. After a handful of performances with Zu, the incomparable vocalist recorded vocals for “Soulympics” and “Orc,” two of the ten outstanding tracks on Carboniferous.
Patton’s contributions on “Orc,” the album’s dark, final track, are wordless but ominous, appearing as throat singing and voice manipulation that sounds like a Tibetan singing bowl. On “Soulympics,” Patton builds steam with deep pitches and whispers before erupting in screeches akin to those that he uses in “Cuckoo for Caca” by Faith No More. A harmonized call of “Superman” then dances with a distant, high-pitched, reverberated overdub, leaving “Soulympics” as, arguably, the album’s best offering.
The tracks without Patton, however, are no less impressive. “Carbon” is built around an infectious count-chant rhythm, interspersing one-beat rests and a two-beat sustain as the group “counts” to six, pounding listeners with relentless force. The song wails with a swirling harmony, created as Mai’s sax reaches a virtual crescendo. “Chthonian,” the preceding track, features Pupillo playing distorted natural harmonics as Battaglia joins to create a polymeter. The song gets extraordinarily heavy while retaining two independent rhythms, lurching between ambience and fury before Osborne’s presence is felt in a wild outro.
Following what should be a laudatory response to Carboniferous, the trio will return to the US in August to travel through the East Coast and to Chicago; in October, the group will again be stateside to tour the West Coast with influential punk/jazz trio NOmeansno. That’s part of a nonstop international itinerary for a group that was in the US just last November.
“All the people who try to live off the music are in the same situation,” Pupillo says. “You do it and it’s great, but at the same time, it takes your whole life. You don’t have any spare moments anymore.”